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How to Stop Pain From Determining Your World–Part 2

How to Stop Pain From Determining Your World—Part 2

Welcome back to the second part of the series that focuses on how to stop pain from determining your world. The whole series is a reply to the linguistic  determinist who believe that language not only influences, but determines the way we perceive the world.

The first post focused on acknowledging  the feelings of hopelessness that a pain sufferer may have as a result of accepting that his  or her world is the way it is because of language. Thus, the only reality is the reality that their language conceives. So, for example, he or she  may perceive themselves to be a  “problem”  because that’s how they keep describing themselves.

My second post will examine how language influences, according to those who support linguist  determinism, the way we look at the world.

As I said in post 1 of the series , my hope is that even after acknowledging and then showing how language  influences the way a pain sufferer looks at the world, it does not determine how he or she will cope in the future.

Let’s Jump In.

In the last post I spoke about C. L. Stevenson, a famous American philosopher whose work, entails some sort of linguistic determinism. The notion, as I said, that the world is the way because  of language. After dealing with the belief that language influences the way we look at the world, it’s time to show precisely how, in the eyes of linguistic determinist,  language influences your actions. Benjamine  Lee Whorf, was an American linguist and fire prevention engineer who seems to back up Stevenson’s theory. In his article “The language”,  he argues rather successfully how language influences how you see the world. This has a tremendous implication  for someone like a chronic pain sufferer. Why? Well, how he or she sees the world can have direct impact on how he or she sees themselves  in the world.

To illustrate, let’s say a pain sufferer’s vision of the world around her or him is confined to the contributions that family  members make to the financial success of the family. If that’s their  entire scope of how they fit in the world, then they could easily  come to accept the description  of themselves as moochers. Consider this excerpt from a report about pain sufferers unable to work—“Many people felt guilty about not working and suspected that they were labelled a ‘shirker’ or a fraud particularly if they claimed unemployment benefits” [1]

Case of The empty Gasoline Drum

Benjamine Whorf was a fire inspector and drew heavily on his work with fire victims for illustrative material. He argues that language  correlates with perception and that it may actually determine the way people perceive  reality. He notes, for example, that words often affect the way people decide to act.  Employees at one factory, he discovered, would heat “full” gasoline drums with care, but didn’t take “empty” ones seriously, despite the fact that the gasoline fumes in empty drums are more volatile. The careless actions are rushed by the lack of danger associated with the word “empty”.

Gasoline Drums on Fire
Drums on Fire

Invisible Scars and Empty Gasoline Drums

In the case of a chronic pain sufferer the lesson to be considered is as follows: words such as exhausting, excruciating, and debilitating may be like the full gasoline drum. They cause others to be more empathic and thus more considerate in how they relate to pain sufferers. However, chronic pain unlike a burn doesn’t leave visible scars. Those invisible scars that may not be given much considerations can be just as volatile as the gasoline fumes in empty drums.

A pain sufferer’s  condition can cause them to erupt in anger or come across as mean. The result often is a further isolation from the very people that he or she needs.

Water on Fire

Another Example From Whorf’s Article is Stated as Follows:

A tannery discharged waste water containing animal matter into an outdoor settling basin partly roofed with wood and partly open. This situation is one that ordinarily would be verbalized as “pool of water”. A workman had occasion to light a blowtorch near by, and threw his match into the water. But the decomposing waste matter was evolving gas under the wood cover, so that the set-up was the reverse of “watery”. An instant flare of flames ignited the woodwork, and the fire quickly spread into the adjoining building.[2]


We can state the lesson of mentioned incident this way: the cue to how we behave is often given by the analogies of the language  we use. It was quite reasonable for the workman to think that  his match would be distinguished  by what he thought was a pool of water. The reality was that he, because of the decomposing waste matter, was actually  putting a lit match  to gas. The result was the opposite of what he had attended—a disastrous fire.

Building on Fire
Building on Fire

Like wise, you see that  a pain sufferer has lost interest in doing anything today and yet was more active yesterday. You want to help. You figure that you’ll give them a “pep talk” because motivation always pushes people to get on with their lives. What you may fail to realize is that your well meaning words to ‘try harder” may actually have the opposite effect of  encouragement and instead deepen the person’s sense of awareness of her or his condition. You maybe clueless to the fact that a person experiencing fluctuating levels of pain often uses “good days”  to squeeze  everything they can as a way to preserve their  energy on a bad day when pain doesn’t allow them to do routine activities. On a good day the body can be controlled in order to accomplish activities, and to store up time against a bad day.


As I said in the beginning  of this series, I reject the linguistic determinist view  that language determines  the way we perceive  the world. I think this notion is particularly harmful to those experiencing chronic widespread pain who may come to believe that they are how they are described. That said, for me to credibly make my argument  as to why pain sufferers, and anyone for that matter, should reject linguist determinism I had to acknowledge the popular aspects of the theory.

With that in mind, the first post in this series addressed the notion that language influences the way we look at the world. The second post, as promised, examined how language  does this.  Having accepted and given a fair hearing the contention that language influences how we perceive  the world, I am now ready to show why it’s too big a leap and unreasonable to say language determines the way we look at the world. This will be the topic of my next post. Meanwhile, if you want to go back to the beginning all you to do is simply click here. I like to hear from the readers so please leave me a comment below to let me know if this post helped you or if you have any questions.



2. Whorf B.L. (1997) The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language. In: Coupland N., Jaworski A. (eds) Sociolinguistics. Modern Linguistics Series. Palgrave, London

2 thoughts on “How to Stop Pain From Determining Your World–Part 2

  1. Another great post! I agree with you that while that language influences, according to those who support linguist determinism, the way we look at the world. But does not determine how we look at the world. Really intriguing post. Nice work!

    1. Hi Megan,

      Thanks so much for the kind words, and I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post. I was motivated to write this post because so much of our language when it comes to chronic illness has such a defeatist and negative slant. A person with wide spread chronic pain, listening to all the negativity, can easily belief that they are doomed to a life of pain. Don’t get me wrong. I think the people have to come to terms with and accept that chronic pain may be part of their lives. However, I don’t believe that means chronic pain has to define their lives. This is where I differ from the linguist determinists.

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